I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.
-- J. Robert Oppenheimer,
Scientific Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Michael David Crawford
Copyright © 2006 Michael David Crawford.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Global nuclear war is imminent.
Why now, and not before? Because Iran may have nuclear weapons. As I will explain, it doesn't matter whether they really have the bomb. I am confident that the first use of nuclear weapons in anger since Nagasaki will happen within the year, two years at the most.
The only Muslim country that is certain to have bombs is Pakistan, but it doesn't hate Israel like Iran does. It's farther away, and so could not bomb Israel if it wanted to. But it has a part to play in this game too, as we shall see.
(Pakistan's beef is with India, also a member of the Nuclear Club, over the disputed region of Kashmir. Both countries first tested their bombs days apart from each other in an obvious show of saber rattling: they each detonated several bombs all in one day. But I digress.)
Iran may not really posses a working weapon, but it does have advanced facilities to refine weapons-grade Uranium. It has never made a secret of this fact; quite the opposite, the Iranians have often boasted of it.
But first I'd like to explain just how and why any Popular Mechanics reader with the inclination, some simple hand tools, a few extra bucks and an afternoon to spare can rain Hellfire from the Heavens.
by Tom Lehrer,
That Was The Year That Was
First we got the bomb and that was good,
'Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that's O.K.,
'Cause the balance of power's maintained that way!
France got the bomb, but don't you grieve,
'Cause they're on our side (I believe).
China got the bomb, but have no fears;
They can't wipe us out for at least five years!
Then Indonesia claimed that they
Were gonna get one any day.
South Africa wants two, that's right:
One for the black and one for the white!
Egypt's gonna get one, too,
Just to use on you know who.
So Israel's getting tense,
Wants one in self defense.
"The Lord's our shepherd," says the psalm,
But just in case, we better get a bomb!
Luxembourg is next to go
And, who knows, maybe Monaco.
We'll try to stay serene and calm
When Alabama gets the bomb!
Who's next, who's next, who's next?
This essay isn't actually about the Iranian bomb. It's just one example of several I could choose, but Iran is making front page headlines these days. Using Iran to illustrate my point makes it easier to drive it home.
In 1994, when I first realized the danger of which I should warn others, it was the North Koreans. They're rattling their saber again these days but I choose Iran because a North Korean bomb could only take out South Korea and not the entire Middle East.
In the 1980's, it was Saddam Hussein's bomb, but Israel delayed it's production by sending Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in X-Wing Fighters to drop a bomb down the Death Star's stairwell.
Now unable to produce Plutonium synthetically, Iraq, in The Empire Strikes Back, set out to refine nuclear explosive from natural Uranium. But they blundered by striking the rebel base of Kuwait before achieving nuclear capability; the Rebel response decimated the Empire's forces and forced the Emperor to submit to humiliating weapons inspections.
There is no question that the Iraqis sought Weapons of Mass Destruction before the first Gulf War. UN inspectors found, buried underground, such weapon-making devices as Calutrons, used to refine Uranium. Calutrons require massive amounts of electricity and shelters the size of football stadiums; to avoid notice of their construction by American spy satellites, the Iraqis buried their Calutrons a hundred miles from their electric power stations, with the Calutrons supplied by undergound cables.
Calutrons are simple in principle, but in practice work very poorly. Thus the Manhattan Project scientists struggled for years to improve the Calutron's design to the point it could make enough Uranium for even one bomb. The designs thus had huge commercial value, so they applied for and were granted several top-secret patents.
The weapons inspectors also found photocopies of the Calutron patents. They were declassified after the war, you see, when far more efficient means of refining Uranium were invented, as the Calutron was then considered obsolete.
But, the Emperor figured, if the Calutron worked well enough for Hiroshima, then it would work well enough for Saddam.
My purpose in writing this is not to warn you of the bomb's danger, but of the ease with which it is made. Any country that doesn't already have atomic bombs either doesn't want them - Canada for example - or fear they would be attacked if they tried to make one.
Don't get me started about the Alberta Tar Sands. Just don't.
The only real obstacle to building a bomb is obtaining the nuclear explosive; it requires either collosal amounts of electricity and a huge industrial plant to refine natural Uranium, or a large nuclear reactor and a great deal of time to synthesize enough Plutonium.
To put it more bluntly, you could build a bomb of your own if you just had enough time and money.
Or, you could just buy it on the black market from one of the former Soviet republics. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States has worked tirelessly to prevent this by buying up all the bomb-grade material it can get and shipping it to the US for safekeeping.
I don't recall clearly, but I remember reading that Vladimir Putin put a stop to this, to avoid diminishing the Russian Republic's capacity to rebuild its nuclear force.
The first atomic bombs were built with the technology of the 1940's; such technology is within the reach of any industrialized nation even if it is a member of the Third World.
Notably, the United States did not possess programmable computers until the Manhattan Project was well advanced, and even then it only had one, which was very slow and unreliable as it was built from vacuum tubes.
Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, then a young man fresh out of graduate school, was in charge of the computer division at Los Alamos. I was told by a fellow student at Caltech that Feynman was given this task because he could figure numerical solutions to systems of differential equations in his head.
A Manhattan Project "computer" was a smart young man sitting at a desk with a table of logarithms and an adding machine. They worked together in large teams to run numerical simulations of the bomb detonations, simulations which would take weeks or months to complete. The bomb designers would then improve their designs based on the simulation results and the results of actual experiments, and run the simulations all over again.
Thus even a 386 PC with 640 kilobytes of RAM running DOS would dwarf even the capacity of the computers used to design the Hydrogen bomb after the war. What could even one PhD physicist accomplish with one of today's Linux boxes running MatLab?
A fully detailed understanding of all but a few of the bomb's design requirements can be had with a few months of research in the library of any major University as well as the archives of the US Patent Office. I once met two young men who set for themselves and met the challenge of designing a bomb before their eighteenth birthdays. Experts who studied their design said it was credible.
If you'd like to understand bomb design in more detail, I recommend:
The two books by Richard Rhodes are historical accounts of the development of the bombs accompanied by conceptual explanations of their workings. The Primer consists of notes from a series of lectures Serber gave to new scientists when they arrived at Los Alamos National Laboratory to work on the Bomb. Once classified, the Primer was declassified in 1965. While quite technical, Serber added annotations to the print edition for non-specialists.
Ask for express shipping, as you won't have enough time to read the books otherwise.
(The reason I finally decided to go back to school to write my undergraduate thesis, get my degree, and go on to graduate school was that I read Rhodes' A-Bomb book and said to myself, "Hey, I could do that!" I received my Bachelor of Arts in Physics from the University of California Santa Cruz in December, 1993.)
Until Iran tests, there is no way even they could know that their bomb would actually work; even though the general techniques of making a bomb are well-known, some aspects such as the explosive lenses and the initiator in a Plutonium bomb are tricky and hard to get right.
Uranium bombs are much more reliable and easy to make, but it's much harder to refine enough bomb-grade Uranium from natural Uranium than it is to make enough Plutonium in a reactor.
The Manhattan Project scientists weren't certain which kind of fuel they could make enough of first, or whether either kind would really work in practice, so to play it safe they made both kinds of bombs. The Trinity test was Plutonium, Hiroshima Uranium, and Nagasaki Plutonium.
After the war, US bomb production focused on Plutonium bombs as they are smaller, lighter and more powerful. All Hydrogen bombs use Plutonium detonators.
The fissible isotope U-235 occurs naturally and in abundance, natural Uranium is a mixture of isotope 235 with a much larger proportion of the the non-fissile isotope U-238. Bomb-grade Uranium can only be refined by taking advantage of the two isotopes' tiny difference in atomic weight, for example by using their momentum to split a beam of Uranium vapour in a mass spectrometer known as a Calutron.
This works well, but requires massive amounts of electricity; the Manhattan Project used ten percent of the entire United State's electrical capacity throughout World War II, as well as most of the US Mint's cache of silver as magnet wire for the calutrons.
Plutonium does not occur in nature but is easily made in a reactor, and from there easily refined chemically. However, even a very large reactor produces only tiny quantities of it, so one must run such a reactor for years to get enough fuel for just one bomb. Plutonium is so hard to make that Berkeley's Glen Seaborg had to develop techniques for handling chemicals in test tubes the size of a human hair in order to find a way to purify it.
Uranium bombs work by rapidly assembling a critical mass of U-235. One fires a Uranium slug out of a cannon into the center of a Uranium ring.
Plutonium bombs work by firing a spherical explosive lens to collapse a sub-critical sphere of Plutonium-238. The detonation also activates an initiator at the center of the Plutonium core, which kicks off the reaction by bombarding the Plutonium with neutrons. (I've never quite understood why one needs to shrink the Plutonium sphere.)
In either case, when a Uranium or Plutonium nucleus absorbs a neutron, it causes a chain reaction in which the nucleus splits into two large chunks and some more neutrons. The new neutrons then cause more nuclei to split, causing even more to split and so on in a geometrically-growing avalanche that ended World War II with two hundred thousand sudden deaths.
Once one possesses a Plutonium bomb it is very easy to take the next step. Hydrogen bomb design has been common knowledge ever since The Progressive magazine successfully challenged government censors and published the details back in 1979.
The fuel is quite easy to obtain; Deuterium is abundant and much easier to separate from Hydrogen-1 than U-235 is from U-238 because of its much larger ratio of atomic mass.; "Heavy water" is actually produced distilling regular water!
Tritium also occurs naturally from the decay of Radon gas, which is produced by the decay of many radioactive isotopes, particularly Radium. Any nuclear reactor will make lots of it.
I won't discuss Hydrogen bombs in detail, except to say that a Plutonium bomb is used to both heat and compress Deuterium and Tritium, isotopes of Hydrogen with one or two neutrons in addition to its single proton.
When a temperature and pressure comparable to that of the Sun's core is achieved, the Deuterium and Tritium nuclei fuse - that is, join together - to form Helium. A Helium nucleus is slightly less massive than two Hydrogen nuclei; this difference is converted into light whose energy is given by Einstein's famous equation E = mC^2, where C is the speed of light.
Light is the fastest thing in the Universe; when you square it, it makes a Real Big Number. Thus you can see that converting even a tiny amount of mass yields a phenomenal amount of energy; the bombs dropped during World War II each shed the mass of a United States Ten Cent piece.
A modest Hydrogen bomb is a thousand times as powerful. There is no real limit to how big an H-Bomb can be; in practice, the limit is set by the delivery system, as heavy Hydrogen bombs are quite large.
The biggest man-made explosion in history was a 60 Megaton H-bomb dropped on a Siberian island from an airplane in a Cold War Soviet demonstration of military might. (One Megaton is the explosive force of one million tons of TNT.)
The bomb's fall was slowed by a parachute to give the plane's pilot a fighting chance to escape. He was told ahead of time that they weren't certain how powerful the blast would really be, thus his survival was uncertain.
Nazi Germany pursued atomic weapons during World War II, but the Allies sent commandos into Norway aboard a glider, equipped with skis for landing on the snow, to blow up a Nazi heavy water plant, in what the British considered the most successful act of sabotage in World War II.
The heavy water wasn't for hydrogen bombs, but for a heavy water-cooled nuclear reactor.
Their raid is detailed in Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, as well as in a gripping Hollywood movie starring Kirk Douglas called The Heroes of Telemark.
The US uses light water reactors, but the Hydrogen-2 isotope Deuterium in heavy water-cooled reactors like Canada's CanDu reactor doesn't quench the reaction the way light water's Hydrogen-1 isotope does. Light water reactors require enriched Uranium fuel because the Hydrogen-1 nucleus readily captures neutrons. Deuterium has a much smaller neutron capture cross section because its nucleus already has a neutron. Heavy water reactors thus don't need their Uranium fuel to be enriched, and so are far easier to make.
Heavy water reactors are discouraged by the International Atomic Energy Agency for the same reason they interested the Nazis: they are also far more efficient than light water reactors at producing plutonium.
Had Telemark's Heros not blown up Norsk Hydro's heavy water plant and later sunk a fully-loaded passenger ferry that was transporting a load heavy water to Germany, the Nazis might have gotten the bomb too, and would likely have used it on London and Moscow, possibly even New York City by sneaking one into the harbour aboard a submarine.
After the war, Allied troops discovered that the Nazis had actually built such a reactor, in which Uranium balls were suspended in heavy water by chains, but it was subcritical because the Germans couldn't get enough heavy water. The Nazis were thus unable ever to make any Plutonium.
There now: you can invoke Godwin's Law and put an end to this whole question. Satisfied?
The crux of my argument is that, while no one but Iran can know whether they have a bomb, and even Iran cannot know whether it would actually work, they are close enough to joining The Nuclear Club as to possess a credible threat not just to Israel, but to every country that has taken either Israel's side in its wars with Lebanon and Palestine, or the United States' side in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially England.
While Iran might prefer to bomb Israel, actually delivering such a bomb is problematic. Both kinds of A-bombs are always very heavy when first developed, weighing several tons, until a nuclear program has had enough testing to figure out how to shrink them. They are also very large: the US had to modify its conventional bombers to carry nukes, not because they were too heavy, but because they were too big to fit.
Thus Iran cannot possibly hit Israel with a nuclear missile. They would have to smuggle one into Israel via land or sea, and both are very heavily guarded to prevent any sort of enemy weapon, let alone atomic bombs, from getting into the country.
On the other hand, Iran has a huge shipping industry because of its oil. It would be trivial for them to send a shipping container with a bomb in it to a neutral country, and from there to a British or American port, where it would be detonated before it had to pass through customs.
It's not actually Iranian bombs that concern me, rather those possessed by Israel, England, and the US:
On July 15th, 2005, Colorado congressman Rep. Tom Tancredo advocated nuking Mecca if America was again attacked by terrorists. Speaking on a radio station in Florida, Tancredo said the "ultimate threat" would have to be met with an "ultimate response."
Then there's the news that the Pentagon, under instruction from Vice President Cheney, has assigned the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM), the task of creating contingency plans to conduct a large-scale air assault on Iran. The attack would include the use of tactical nuclear weapons and would be carried out in the event of another 9/11-type terror attack on U.S. soil.
-- Mark Vallen, We're Number One
Kuro5hin's coillte posted estimates in my diary that Israel may possess as many as five hundred bombs, possibly even heavy Hydrogen bombs. While Israel has never tested, it possesses some of the world's best scientific and engineering talent, with no shortage of either computing hardware or software engineers for accurate numerical explosion simulations.
Thus, there is no question in my mind that if Israel were to push the button, it would work on the first try. Iran is within range of Israeli planes that have the lift capacity and range to deliver.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the US has bombs aboard missile and aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and Red Sea: cruise missiles were originally developed to bomb the Soviet Union, so I'm certain every cruise missile carrier in the US Navy has nukes.
Not to mention the submarines. The British have them too. (They had the bomb from the start, as the Manhattan Project was a joint US/British collaboration.)
Neither Israel, the United States nor Britain can possibly take the risk of Iran creating a working bomb. Thus they will bomb Iran back to the Stone Age should it ever seem imminent.
While the US or Britain could easily cripple Iran's nuclear program with conventional weapons, because of the distance, and the sheer size and number of the facilities required to refine either Uranium or Plutonium - a Uranium plant is the size of a football field - Israel could not hope to irreparably damage Iran's facilities with anything short of a dozen nuclear weapons.
Why? Because Israel would only get one chance: before Israel's planes could return to base, refuel, and return with fresh bombs, Iran's air defenses would be at battle stations, with fighter planes swarming in the air above targets. Their first strike would thus have to kock out several square miles of industrial facilties, obliterate Iran's reactors, as well as dozens of electrical power plants.
Israel does not possess enough planes to take out more than one Uranium plant conventionally at that distance, let alone a hundred industrial facilities. Not in just one shot.
UN weapons inspectors discovered many of Iraq's nuclear facilities hidden underground after the first Gulf war, such has hundred-mile-long buried cables to power its Calutrons well away from its power plants; likely Iran his buried many of its facilities as well.
Even if Iran is taken out with conventional weapons, they haven't been weakened by a previous war with the West and a decade of sanctions as Iraq was. Iran has had decades to prepare itself for war with the US and Israel, is one of the world's top oil-producing nations, and therefore very wealthy. Is has also seen two of its neighbors annihilated by the US and British, who have no qualms whatsoever about torturing and murdering prisoners of war. Iran surely has no doubt who will be Bush' next target.
Thus there is also no doubt in my mind that if the US or Britain were to bomb Iran, Iran would invade Iraq. The US and Britain are up to their eyeballs fighting the insurgents, and don't have enough troops to repel an Iranian ground invasion. Iran might well be able to drive the US and Britain from Iran, unless...
Britain or the US fight back with nuclear weapons.
While Pakistan is a US ally, the Pakistani government is very unpopular with its people. Thus if any Muslim nation, not just Iraq, were ever bombed, the Pakistani government would be overthrown by its military and the new regime would come to Iran's aid in a nuclear way. The fun would then begin in earnest!
That's why I recently ran a poll in my diary regarding how many weeks we'd have to wait for the first bomb to drop. My vote was four weeks. That was a week ago, so now it's just three.
That's still my top pick, but I am as certain as I can be that Judgement Day will come before the year is out.
Hope that clears everything up for you. This might be a good time to buy a shovel and dig a fallout shelter: Dig a whole in your back yard, throw a piece of plywood or a couple doors on top of it, and cover that with a thick layer of dirt. As T.K. Jones once explained, "It's the dirt that does it."
Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. I read the other day that the Syrians developed their own models of Scud missiles that not only can hit any target in Israel, but carry far larger warheads than the missiles that the Hezbollah has been shooting at Haifa.
The same article said the Syrian's also have VX nerve gas. Thus the Forces of Allah don't actually need a bomb to put millions of Israelis to death in an instant.
My message is not to the world's leaders, but its people. That's why I beg of you, if you want your country's children to have a future, and you live in one of the belligerent countries, to do whatever it takes to persuade your political, military and religious leaders to stand down from the conflict.
I'll leave the definitions of "whatever it takes" and "persuade" as exercises for the reader.
No one's, in particular. None of the parties involved have clean hands in my honest opinion.
I am on the side of peace and disarmanent.
Failing that I also feel very strongly that every sovereign nation has both a right and a duty to its people to maintain troops and weaponry sufficient to preserve that sovereignty.
That's why, despite otherwise opposing most of what Canada's new Prime Minister Steven Harper proposes, I strongly support his goal of rebuilding Canada's once-proud military, which has fallen into disrepair as the result of neglect by previous governments.
That's why, as long as the United States possesses even one bomb, I support North Korea's right to make nuclear weapons too.
That's why, as long as Israel has bombs, and the United States shows the willingness to invade countries that do not threaten its territorial boundaries, even with conventional weapens, then I support the right of Iran to have atomic bombs too. Even Hydrogen bombs, as both the US and Israel possess them.
Despite being a lefty and a peacenik, and never having served, I still have some idea of what it's like to fight in a war: I was a Navy brat. My father, an officer of the US Navy, was proud to serve his country in Vietnam.
Question: What was the code name of the first successful Hydrogen bomb test?
Google is your friend.